Bones sinking like stones“Don’t Panic” by Coldplay (1999)
All that we fought for
Homes, places we’ve grown
All of us are done for
And we live in a beautiful world
Yeah, we do, yeah, we do
Do we know everything about dinosaurs? What if they built cities out of rock that turned to the dust in which their bones lay? What if they wrote stories on parchment which disintegrated and scattered to the winds? We don’t know whether they spoke languages; their brains were too small–we assume–to do so. We know that some dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs based on the bones. That they walked upright, lived near rivers, protected their young, and covered all the continents, including Antarctica. Two hundred million years was a long time to flourish. Some of it is still a mystery.
Humans have only been discovering things about dinosaurs for about 200 hundred years (happy bicentennial Mary Ann Mantell!) There may be a lot more dino-history buried in those formations. We already know quite a lot from a relatively little, a lot to imagine from just a few bones. If a vertebrae is six feet tall, how big must the creature who carried it have been? (A: 75 ft long)
Kid in a Dino Candy Store
My traveling companion and I have just concluded three days in Vernal, Utah, which self-styles itself as Dinosaurland. This is not to be confused with the smaller town named Dinosaur, twenty miles to the southeast, or the section of Disneyworld in Florida or the town in White Post, Virginia or the various playgrounds, nature worlds, and brontosaurus rides that pepper the world that all proclaim themselves Dinosaurland. It’s a popular idea.
Here in Vernal, they actually discovered dinosaur bones, thus legitimately earning the right to stick a long-eyelashed, pink statue at the town border. And to plaster cartoons TRexes on the sides of every building and van to advertise craft beer, cable repair, car washes, and cannabis … DinoTreats Dispensary–come in for the treats, stay for the ambience! (Oh, geez, now that I looked that up I’m going to be barraged with CBD ads).
Vernal is the town next to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, a 200,000 acre national park built around a quarry full of findings. We investigated the quarry and fossil trail, but also the in-town museum, nearby Flaming Gorge, and driving tours that revealed dozens of petroglyphs plus canyon views that rivaled the Grand Canyon. Without the crowds, too, because Vernal is at least four hours from anything that might be called civilization, and it was a 100 degrees in mid July tramping through the sand and gravel to see the bones.
The American West has been ground central for dinosaur discovery since the mid 1800s, when Cope and Marsh first started arguing about which end of the body to stick the head on. Some of their discoveries made their way into museums in Colorado (Dinosaur Ridge) and New Mexico (Museum of Natural History). As this summer’s trip as meandered through Albuquerque and Denver, I have been lucky enough to go Full Dinosaur for nearly two weeks now.
This whole region was once entirely flat desert, then covered by a Western Inland Sea that split North America in half. Dinosaurs flocked near the tributaries and watering holes. When they died, their bones floated to the bottom or were washed by river currents into a jumbled mix in large eddies. (That’s the logical theory; of course, human catacombs and graveyards are also full of mixed bones that were placed there. Just sayin’)
The Wall Full of Dinosaurs
In 1909, paleontologist Earl Douglass was directed by the Carnegie Museum to go look for dinosaur bones out in Utah. The turn of the century was like the gold rush for archeology and paleontology–everybody was digging. As Douglass searched near the Green River that crosses Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, he found some really big bones. He and his crew found hundreds deposited inside a single hill. They dug out a V shape, uncovering what is now one of the largest sets of bones left for viewing in the world.
Douglass uncovered an entire wall of bones, still nearly vertical. How did the ones get into the wall? A braided, pink-faced ranger (it was 87 degrees at 10 am) explained the geology to us with colored felt strips. She taught us D-U-E: Deposit, Uplift, Erosion. Those river beds or eddies (or catacombs) were dinosaur graveyard deposits. But the earth was still experiencing large-scale tectonic changes. Continents were still moving. The Rocky Mountains were formed from 80 to 55 MYA. Since Cretaceous dinosaurs were wanderng about from 145 to 66 MYA, they were sledding down those new-formed mountains. Or being uplifted, as the ministers might say.
Once the formation was pushed upward, multiple layers of history were suspended sideways, like Oreo cookies in a tray. Erosion on the hill top exposed some of the bones, and enthusiastic paleo diggers did the rest. The original hillside held hundreds of bones which were unearthed and reconstructed into dozens of skeletons. Some were sent to the Pittsburgh Museum that employed Douglass. Vernals’ Field House Museum thanked Carnegie for distributing replica casts of the 80-foot-long Diplodocus Carnegii, the “most famous skeleton in the world” in the Carnegie Museum, to another dozen institutions around the world. (Carnegie made a fortune in steel and railroads; will we someday see Bezos museums around the world, or just on Mars?)
Douglass did manage to get a small section of the discovery preserved in what is Quarry Exhibit Hall today. We can at least see the jumble of bones as the original paleontologists did, trying to separate out tail bone from skull, antorbital fenestrae from the tail spikes of the stegos. The most common dinosaur found in the heap was Camarasaurus, and a full skeleton is assembled in the hall.
Dino Life in Pieces
But full skeletons are rare here, even though they are the easiest way to visualize the creatures that covered the land of 70 million years ago. Most of what you can see in exhibits are single bones or even tiny bits of bone. Imagination has to fill in the rest. Still, every Visitor Center and “Cowboy” museum seems to display some bit of dinosaur. The Gunfighter museum of Craig, Colorado, which mainly sports a huge collection of vintage Colts and woodcut engravings of buffalo hunts, also had a hadrosaur foot cast. A gift shop near the Harper’s Corner canyon tour displayed a Diplodocus shin bone, helpfully the exact size of Earl Douglass–six feet.
If you can’t find all the bones for the whole beast, you have to fill in the gaps. Or, you may not even have whole bones, but instead just the bone chips. This is a parasaurolophus horn, the head crest of my favorite dinosaur. You can see the hundreds of bone fragments that had to be carefully extracted and pieced together. I’m a jigsaw person; perhaps another reason why I’ve always been drawn to dinosaurs. These guys ran in herds, the galloping groups being lassoed by Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, which I would describe as “not the dumbest movie ever made about dinosaurs.”
Savvy dino-diggers have figure out how to piece together bone shards, and they have to figure out which bits were bone as opposed to rock. On a tour of Dinosaur Ridge near Morrison, Colorado, the guide showed us this purple bit of bone. I asked the basic question: How can you tell that’s bone as opposed to red rock? Two reasons. First, the iron in the bones is what gives it the color that separates it from the golden sandstone where it fell. Secondly, if you zoom in at the top, you can actually see cells and blood vessels. Cool!
By the way, dinosaurs are not responsible for creating fossil fuels; your gasoline comes from marine creatures, plants, or algae deposited in the shale from underwater seas, not crushed dino-bones. We’re not burning up dead dinosaurs; cars run on dead algae. Even that, however, is in short supply.
Life Becomes a Doorstop
Meanwhile, the search for dinosaur bones and the uncovering of their way of life will likely only intensify, even though there is more care taken around discoveries than in the wild, early days. Gone are the Dinosaur Wars, when paleontologists would steal each other’s discoveries or blackball their rivals with nasty letters in the newspapers. Still, most of these stories are buried at least 100 million years deep in the soil. Other than regions with helpful “recent” uplift, like near the Rocky Mountains, the rest of dinosaur history might be all around and under us without us knowing.
We only can draw conclusions based on the little that we find, uncovering say a trail of footprints when we blast out the side of a hill to put in a freeway (a la Dinosaur Ridge). And lest you conclude that the giant circles next to the therapod three-toed prints are also dino-tracks, think again. The circles are where previous discoverers chiseled tracks out of the rock as souvenirs. Scientists know this because they found a circular doorstop with the three-toed tracks being used in a nearby college dormitory.
As with all history, we draw conclusions by the evidence left. More evidence, more discoveries lead to more conclusions.
What will the future beings conclude about us, with our piles of catacomb skulls or landfills? Will the rusted metal remains of skyscrapers lead 35th century tourists to conclude that we were robotic? Will they believe our brains were big enough to create language after all our paper books crumble into the wind? We only know about Euclid because some Arabs decided he was worth translating. Or might our descendants see a skull and wonder if we simply made noises through it, like a parasaurolophus?
And will we even leave footsteps in the mud deep enough to be found and used as doorstops in ten million years?